Tagged: Dr. Michael Gazzaniga

Exploring Below the Surface

A recent article in the New York Times, (“Decoding the Brain’s Cacophony” by Benedict Carey-Published: October 31, 2011) reports on research by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which suggests that the functioning of our left brain hemisphere is responsible our familiar view of ourselves–an interpreter–and that what we view as our “coherent self,” is a construct of mental processes that are, in large part, unconscious:

“We are not who we think we are. We narrate our lives, shading every last detail, and even changing the script retrospectively, depending on the event, most of the time subconsciously.”

In his most recent book, “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain,” (Ecco/HarperCollins) Dr. Gazzaniga addresses his ideas at length, and presents a strong case for resisting the urge to equate all of our behaviors and explain our humanity by “studying neural circuits:”

“Can brain science tell exactly where automatic processes end and self-directed “responsible” ones end? Not now and not likely ever, Dr. Gazzaniga argues in his book. Social constructs like good judgment and free will are even further removed, and trying to define them in terms of biological processes is, in the end, a fool’s game.”

Dr. Gazzaniga says our inclinations to be generous or loving, ruthless or responsible, are not properties of brain function, but rather a “strongly emergent” property — a property that, though derived from biological mechanisms, is fundamentally distinct and obeys different laws, as do ice and water.”

Writer Benedict Carey reports Dr. Gazzaniga’s contention that with all the benefits of research in neuroscience, the tendency to draw conclusions, particularly in a courtroom setting, may be premature:

“Brain-scanning technology is not ready for prime time in the legal system; it provides less information than people presume. Brain images are snapshots, for one thing; they capture a brain state at only one moment in time and say nothing about its function before or after. For another, the images vary widely among people with healthy brains — that is, a “high” level of activity in one person may be normal in another.”

Carl G. Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, wrote extensively about our unconscious nature, concentrating his formidable intellect in the pursuit of understanding the psyche by exploring the worlds of dreams, art, mythology, world religion and philosophy. In what may be his most important work, “Symbols of Transformation,” (from his Collective Works, Volume 5) Jung described his idea of a “collective unconscious:”

“The psyche is not of today; its ancestry goes back many millions of years. Individual consciousness is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome ( perpetual root) beneath the earth; and it would find itself in better accord with the truth if it took the existence of the rhizome into its calculations. For the root matter is the mother of all things.”

Jung’s theory points to a much larger view of how our conscious awareness may rely on numerous layers of unconscious processes, whose influence and effects come through a synthesis of our cognitive functions, including sense perceptions, the process of recognition, evaluation, intuition, feelings, instincts, and even dreams, which Jung says warrant inclusion on the list:

“…because they are the most important and most obvious results of unconscious psychic processes obtruding themselves upon consciousness. The dream as such is undoubtedly a content of consciousness, otherwise it could not be an object of immediate experience. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” – (from “The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Vol. 8”)

Expanding our views of what might be contributing to our humanity through consciousness, beyond what we discover through cognitive neuroscience, as amazing and important as this work can be, requires an exploration below the surface.

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